The Grand Conversation on ebooks: Elfwreck (part 1)

Elfwreck is the nom de net of an avid (some would say fanatic) ebook reader with over 10 years professional experience with digital imaging and over 25 years with document conversion and editing. She manages the [community profile] ebooks community at Dreamwidth and is active at the Mobileread forums. She lives in the SF Bay Area in California, and is also involved in tabletop RPG gaming, copyright activism, filking, and slash fandom.

“Turning Pirates Into Customers”

Part 1: Customers in Potentia

Everyone knows the title of this post is an attention hook, not an offer, right? Presumably, readers understand that if I actually had any magic button that would turn digital pirates into paying customers, I’d either use it out of the goodness of my heart and make the world a more honest, more profitable place, or sell it to Disney for ten billion dollars and retire to my own island while they completed their takeover of world culture.

I do have some ideas on why it’s important to consider pirates as potential customers and how to convert them (or rather, how to convert the leeches; the uploading pirates are often already good customers).

When I’m being technically accurate, I call it “unauthorized file sharing” because it might not be illegal.[1] Most of the time, I just call it “piracy” because that term has been embraced by several sides. Authors and publishers use it to imply they’re being raided and stolen from by people outside of the reach of normal laws; uploaders and downloaders use it to imply they’re creative rebels fighting against oppressive corporations (who did you root for — Captain Jack or the East India Trading Company?).

While the legal and moral issues of “piracy” aren’t certain, the practical truth is that it’s both frustrating and scary for authors who look at those downloads and think, “why aren’t they buying my book, if so many of them like it?” Which comes to the heart of the problem:

What authors need (and publishers, if those are involved) is not “an end to digital piracy.” What they need is more sales. They need more customers, and more of the current customers buying more ebooks. It doesn’t matter if they stop pirates; book contracts aren’t renewed based on the number of pirates stopped.

DMCA takedown notices to Megaupload and Rapidshare don’t result in more sales. Shutting down ThePirateBay doesn’t sell books. Even if takedown efforts resulted in removal of content, instead of pushing it laterally to somewhere else on the web, there’s no evidence that those people would turn around and buy the legit versions of the content they formerly pirated instead of turning to other legitimate free content online.

I’m focusing on ebooks and not including print as an acceptable substitute. The solution to “the ebook isn’t available at a price I can accept” will not be “just buy the paper version instead.” First, because some of us don’t read print, either as a matter of preference (like me) or ability (people whose hands are too weak or shaky for pbooks, or who need large text); second, because the most affordable print version is often second-hand … which still leaves the author out of royalties. Third … let’s just allow there is a third, and fourth, and more possible reasons why print is not always a reasonable substitute. Telling people they should be reading more pbooks isn’t going to work.

Might as well say, “if my book isn’t available at a price you like, read something else.” That’s a shoot-yourself-in-the-foot approach to potential customers when you stop and think about it.

“Pirates” are all potential customers. The most active—the ones who upload often, and download lots, not the ones who download the newest bestseller because it’s faster than borrowing their brother’s copy—are interested in ebooks. Pirates care about the works they share (or steal, depending on your vocabulary choices. Either way—people don’t steal what they don’t want, even if what they want is “a huge collection” rather than anything specific within that collection.).

To get them to buy instead of download, authors need to know what they’re downloading, and why they’re not buying it. It’s not “because they’re lazy, greedy criminals who would rather steal than pay artists.” Most people want to support the artists who create the content they love; if they don’t, it’s because they either believe they can’t afford to, or circumstances have made that support impossible for them.

The common response to “they can’t afford to” is “well, then they shouldn’t read those ebooks.” But we are surrounded by content we aren’t required to pay for. Television (taxed in some countries, but not on a per-use basis; you don’t pay more if you watch more), movies watched at friends’ houses, books borrowed or given by friends when they’re done or picked up at rummage sales for $5 a bagful, prices so low as to be meaningless, and not resulting in payment to the writers. We’ve always had access to huge collections of entertainment and educational content without paying; insisting that the digital world is different makes no sense. It goes against centuries of cultural inertia; artistry has always been paid for by a few and enjoyed by the masses.

Which doesn’t mean it couldn’t be paid for by more people. More payments = more people devoted to writing instead of shuffling papers in an office; those of us who love books would like that. Nobody in ebook downloading circles says, “I download so that authors will go broke, because I want less ebooks in the world.”

Before getting into how they might be convinced to buy instead of downloading, I want to go over what they download. Convincing people to buy requires knowing what they’re expected to give up. Unauthorized ebook downloads—”pirated” books—consist of three main categories:

1) Commercial ebooks, with DRM removed if it existed, shared with people who either don’t believe they can afford the legit version, or don’t want to deal with its restrictions. (DRM, store requires a credit card instead of PayPal, not available in their format of choice, etc.) This includes (among other ebooks), many popular bestsellers, a lot of romance & erotica ebooks, and digital textbooks. When researches try to estimate the “damages” caused by piracy, they focus almost entirely on these books.

This is the category that potentially causes real financial losses; a free download of an ebook available for sale is unlikely to be bought. Some people do buy them, either out of a sense of obligation, or because they forgot they had a free version, or for the sheer convenience of getting it at the moment they’re interested. However, the higher the price of the commercial version, and the more restrictive the DRM from the customer’s perspective, the less likely these sales are.

This is the area where authors and publishers need to focus their efforts on convincing people to buy rather than pirate. This is the only area worth spending real effort on; nothing else is competing against actual sales. “Punish the wicked pirates” may be a fine goal, but it has nothing to do with selling books.

2) Books with no authorized digital edition, which includes both scanned-and-converted books and no-longer-sold commercial ebooks. This includes comic books and manga, very little of which is legitimately available digitally, and almost none of that is backlist; out-of-print graphic content tends to stay out-of-print. Most of the rest of the scanned ebooks are out-of-print books, although some have been re-released in paper; the publisher may not believe there’s a market for the digital version, or hasn’t the rights or resources to offer it digitally. Some are popular books that have no authorized digital version. This category also includes “not available in my country” ebooks … the digital text is not available, at any price, without breaking a law or violating a TOS somewhere.

It’s unclear that this category causes any financial damage at all, and it likely drives up sales for print editions by keeping people aware of and interested in those authors or publishers. The most famous example is Rowling’s books; the almost-never-discussed category is romance novels. (Harlequin just started a digital backlist program; until recently, they retired ebooks after only a few months.) Other ebooks drop out of availability as authors change publishers.

For this area, the potential customer can’t just be redirected to a purchase. If the reader wants access to that ebook, she must either (1) painstakingly scan & convert it herself (which may or may not be entirely legal, depending on her location), or (2) avail herself of the generous work of others, who have procured a digital copy (either by scanning or purchasing a legit version) and made it available for download.

This is the category that authors and publishers need to acknowledge as, at worst, grey; it’s hard to incite moral outrage for the nonprofit distribution of orphan works, with no known rights-holder, and out-of-print comic books, and niche publications that have no interest in exploiting a digital market. Piracy advocates point to this section first when the moral issue is raised, and the common author/publisher reaction of “if they’re not legitimately available, just don’t read them” is a weak response; it’s interpreted as “we’ll decide what you should be reading; your own tastes are irrelevant.”

3) Scanned-and-converted books that differ from the authorized digital edition, often because they were scanned years before an authorized edition was released. These sometimes continue to be shared because their editing is better than the commercial release, which is often automatically OCR’d without proofreading and poorly formatted. (The 12-year-old digital versions of Tolkien’s works are better-proofed than the ones sold today. The usenet .txt files didn’t have “Tha Hobbit” on the title page.) Or they persist because they’re available in formats not sold—often txt or html. Or because the authorized version is considered so very expensive that people will settle for a lower-quality makeshift—this is very common for textbooks.

This is the category that authors and publishers need to pay close attention to; it highlights the problems in their marketing plan. Readers are getting something from the amateur scanned edition that makes it more valuable than the professional release … the fact that this is not uncommon, shows the lack of quality of many professional ebook releases. Uncorrected OCR, formatting that looks awful on a dedicated reader (I’ve seen 1″ hard-coded margins on the 3.5″ wide screen), blocked search or print options in PDFs, lack of a functional (linked) table of contents… commercially-purchased ebooks are a crapshoot for quality issues, and one way to spot them is to check which bootlegs are not the same as the official download.

Sometimes, the previous scanned versions are shared because of inertia; those torrents are widely available and the new commercially-available, DRM-cracked ebook is not. But as sloppy and scattered as the download sites are, quality does get more attention than its lack; if the commercial version is notably better than the previous bootleg, it’ll slowly replace it, and that ebook will slide into the first category instead of the third.

Not that the bootlegs are all great quality files; they have the same series of problems (well, except for the blocked print-and-search options)… but at their price, nobody complains. Anyone who feels inspired to fix the problems can do so, and release that version with no more moral qualms than they had before. A purchased book, with DRM, can’t be fixed, no matter how bad it is.

Which brings me to the point that authors will be most interested in: How do you convince them to buy instead of downloading?

[1] Judge Gertner, in Sony v Tenenbaum:
… file sharing for the purposes of sampling music prior to purchase or space-shifting to store purchased music more efficiently might offer a compelling case for fair use. Likewise, a defendant who used the new file-sharing networks in the technological interregnum before digital media could be purchased legally, but who later shifted to paid outlets, might also be able to rely on the defense.


Elfwreck’s writing can be found at [personal profile] elf, her Dreamwidth blog, or at the Archive Of Our Own.

The Grand Conversation on ebooks will run here at until February 28. If you’d like to contribute a guest blog post, email me at



  1. […] three parts, covering loads of detail and I agree with every bloody word of it. Seriously – go now, and read.. This entry was posted on February 12, 2011 at 9:56 pm and is filed under Books, Ebooks, […]

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  3. Diana says:

    The only way I personally can think of around this involves a throwback that most publishers are throwing out these days because of the considerable expense: the book tour. Giving people a face-to-face connection with the author, and an opportunity for something to sign, goes completely around the piracy issue. No one is going to bring in a USB port for an author to sign (OK, probably 2-3 people not representative of the greater population.)
    But a book to sign, that still has some meaning.

    I suppose if authors did readings via Skype or made it so there was some sort of face-connection, that might alleviate the problem by outlining that the author is real, and not some abstraction that magically produces books.